It’s the obvious answer to the question nobody wants to ask, because as is true in all sports debates, once the answer is provided, the debate dies.
Put simply, the Warriors have downgraded themselves to a good but flawed team, the current equal to seemingly lesser lights like Denver and Oklahoma City and Toronto and Milwaukee, all because the thing that made them extraordinary was their devotion to and capability for defense.
But not just defense, where their obvious slippage has been seen both visually and metrically, but defense as a psychological weapon.
They used to be the team that owned scoreboards in the most compelling way – point differential. They made the game hard for opponents to play to the point where spirits were sapped and wills broken by the end of the third quarter on a routine basis, and conveniently, points flowed the other way from that defense.
Now? They are not just a middle-of-the-pack defensive team overall (20th in points allowed per 100 possessions, 13th in effective field goal percentage allowed, 17th in overall defensive rating, 25th in turnovers forced, etc.), but they get run out of the building an awful lot. They have lost five games by more than 20 points, four of those at home (where they are otherwise 15-0). The only teams that have been beaten more decisively more often this year are Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Orlando, Phoenix and San Antonio – by winning percentage, teams 14 (the Spurs), 24 (the Magic), 27, 28, 29 and 30 (does it matter?).
Steve Kerr called it "slippage" back in the day. It seems like it's more than that now.
Oh, there are reasons for all of it. The center position is easily bullied no matter who plays it, a far cry from the Bogut/McGee/Pachulia era of punishment exacted, the roster is getting older by the odometer; Draymond Green is not 100 percent; Klay Thompson’s mind is drifting toward his season-long shooting struggles; the bench in general is thinner and less Swiss-army-knife-ish . . . whether these are entirely accurate or not, they are all pieces of a more confusing puzzle, one in which they don’t just “turn it on and off at will,” but “get into lousy habits that become easier and easier to revert back to at inopportune times.”
The Lakers loss could have been of those statement games the Warriors used to excel at, but they had no statement to make. LeBron James popped his groin muscle in the third quarter with the Lakers up 71-57, the Warriors cut the lead to two in five minutes and THEN got outscored by 24 in the final 14 and change.
Of course, the wild cards are always played at this point in any discussion. Wait until DeMarcus Cousins can go (February at the soonest, most likely). Wait until Thompson finally becomes the Thompson of old. Green will be 100 percent soon. Durant, Curry, Iguodala, blah blah blah-de-blah blah. The same old stories told the same old ways, and usually to convincing effect come playoff time.
But defense is supposed to carry you in the lean moments of a game, or of a season, and the Warriors are more content to try to win games with the best-defense-is-a-good-offense philosophy that has almost never worked in NBA history, for the simple reason that the best defense is actually a good defense. The Warriors can defend; only Jonas Jerebko of the rotation players is a typically minus-defender. They have three rings that prove it.
But for now, they are getting much less of that at a time when they need it most. Not because their record is worrisome – they won a championship with 58 wins last year – but because they’ve forgotten/devalued the benefits of psychological terror that comes with crushing crushable teams – like, say, the James-less Lakers.
And until they relocate that, probably by becoming more difficult at the far end of the gym until their offense is reassembled, they will have games like Tuesday’s, ones that only embolden opponents into thinking that the Warriors can be had, right now, as they are.
And opponents are always much easier to defeat when they don’t think they can defeat you.